May 5, 1903 – James Beard:
“I believe that if ever I had to practice cannibalism, I might manage if there were enough tarragon around.”
I don’t know how you feel, but I miss restaurants and bars, although I have been surviving by ordering delivery five times a week.
A Portland icon and probably the number one figure in American food culture, James Beard briefly attended Reed College in Portland, although he was expelled in 1922 for being gay. Reed granted Beard an honorary degree in 1976. In 1923, he studied voice and acting abroad until 1927, when he returned to the United States.
Instead of a life in the theatre, Beard became a chef, a writer of cookbooks, and teacher and television personality. Beard was a champion of American cuisine who taught and mentored generations of professional chefs and food enthusiasts. His legacy lives on in his 20 books, other writings and his foundation’s annual James Beard Awards, the Academy Awards of cooking.
Beard didn’t invent American cuisine, but in many ways, he defined it for generations to come. Gay chef Craig Claiborne (1920-2000) declared Beard a “missionary in the gospel of bringing good cooking to the home table“. Julia Child said, “In the beginning, there was Beard“, a quote repeated by food critics to the point of cliché.
Beard’s influence cannot be overstated: He pioneered food television with the first-ever network cooking series in 1946; he published two dozen bestselling books and hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles on cooking; his work inspired home cooks to no longer see food as mere sustenance but as a delightful, delicious entertainment.
After Beard’s passing in 1985, Julia Child wanted to preserve his home in New York City as the gathering place that it had been during his life. Peter Kump, former student of Beard’s, spearheaded efforts to purchase the house and create the James Beard Foundation. Beard’s brownstone in Greenwich Village is the only historic culinary center in North America. It is preserved as a gathering place where the press and general public can appreciate the talents of emerging and established chefs.
The annual James Beard Awards were supposed to be announced today, his birthday, but they are postponed until this summer because of some nasty virus that’s going around. Here’s the list of semifinalists. If you want to help independent eateries get through the pandemic, go here.
For more than 30 years, the James Beard Foundation has highlighted the centrality of food culture in our daily lives. Through the James Beard Awards, unique dining experiences at the James Beard House and around the country, scholarships, hands-on learning, and a variety of industry programs that educate and empower leaders in our community, the Foundation has built a platform for chefs and asserted the power of gastronomy to drive behavior, culture, and policy change around food. The Foundation has also created Women’s Leadership Programs aimed at addressing the gender imbalance in the culinary industry; advocacy training through our Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change. The organization is committed to giving chefs and their colleagues a voice and the tools they need to succeed.
And though his impact was as immense as his 6’4″, 300 pound frame, another enormous part of Beard’s life hardly factors into his legacy: his queerness.
Beard came out as gay in his memoir, Delights And Prejudices (1981), yet given his legendary status, it’s surprising how his gayness is little more than a footnote to his career. In the the memoir, Beard writes:
“By the time I was seven, I knew that I was gay. I think it’s time to talk about that now.”
When he died of congestive heart failure in 1985, the obituaries made only winking references to his sexuality. Major biographies published in the 1990s: James Beard: A Biography And Epicurean Delight: The Life by Robert Clark and Times Of James Beard by Evan Jones, both straight men, treat Beard’s queerness as an inconsequential detail. Even the current bio page on the website of the James Beard Foundation fails to mention his 30-year relationship with Gino Cofacci, a pastry chef and author of two cookbooks.
Cofacci was given an apartment in Beard’s townhouse in the will. He was taken by the plague in 1989. Beard also had an affair with his former cooking school assistant Carl Jerome.
Beard was so monumental that it’s entirely possible to consider his career without mentioning his personal life. But can you easily remove Beard’s queerness from his culinary sensibilities, which so brazenly stood in contrast to American norms at the time?
It was the sexuality of three gay culinary masters: Beard, Claiborne, and Richard Olney (1927-1999) that played the major role in both the aesthetics of their cooking and, with their outsized influence on American food. They were part of a cultural shift in America that really embraced pleasure for its own sake.
The erasure of Beard’s queerness is just another course in the straight male-dominated culture in professional kitchens. Despite the increasingly visible presence of queer culinary celebrities, the back-of-the-house can still prove hostile to LGBTQ people and straight women. There is no quick-and-easy recipe for queer progress, it’s hard, hot work.